Latin America

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

There are few relationships in the world of mainstream religion that are more private, and often mysterious, than the bonds between a priest and a penitent who comes to Confession.

This is especially true when the priest hears the same person’s Confessions over and over for years — even taking on the role of people a believer’s “spiritual father” and guide in life.

So what happens when a priest becomes a bishop? Bishops, cardinals and even popes need to go to Confession and some may even retain ties with their “spiritual fathers” as they climb the ecclesiastical ladder.

Why do I bring this up?

I do so because of a fine detail way down in an Associated Press report that — for a moment, forget teens in MAGA hats and Twitter storms by journalists — may turn out to be a crucial turning point in the complicated story of Pope Francis and wayward bishops involved, in various ways, with sexual abuse.

We will get to the Confessional in a moment. Here is the long, but crucial AP overture:

The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told The Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.

Francis accepted Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's resignation in August 2017, after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and a former vicar, seminary rector and another prelate provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians, said the former vicar, the Rev. Juan Jose Manzano.

The scandal over Zanchetta, 54, is the latest to implicate Francis as he and the Catholic hierarchy as a whole face an unprecedented crisis of confidence over their mishandling of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with adults. Francis has summoned church leaders to a summit next month to chart the course forward for the universal church, but his own actions in individual cases are increasingly in the spotlight.

The pope's decision to allow Zanchetta to resign quietly, and then promote him to a new No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to the misconduct of his allies or dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.

Yes, “naked selfies” in a Vatican story. Were these photos sent to others or kept for — oh well, whatever, never mind.

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Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

The country is divided. You already knew that.

People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter that he says. You already knew that, too.

Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).

The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.

Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.

The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.

The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?

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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

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Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Saved in El Salvador: Lots of media are flocking to cover gang members-turn-evangelical story

Certain places in the world have problems that seem to be intractable. South Sudan. North Korea. And El Salvador.

The latter is the homicide capital of the world. Zillions of dollars have been poured into it. The U.S. government has declared war on its criminal elements. And nothing’s changed.

One institution, however, is dealing with the gangs. I was fascinated to see Molly O’Toole’s piece in The New Republic on how evangelical churches have the only solution that’s working.

Who would have thunk it?

At a small jail outside San Salvador, Brother David Borja lifted his sunglasses to talk a guard into letting us inside. The cell, originally intended for temporary holding, smelled of sweat and urine. In the center was a roughly ten-by-ten-foot cage, and inside it, a tangle of limbs and hammocks.

At the sight of Borja, a street preacher from the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, bare-chested, tattooed young men began crawling down from the hammocks and pulling on T-shirts.

As Borja started to pray, the men crossed themselves and bowed their heads. A few cried silently; others testified, “Truth.” … As the guard latched the thick steel behind us, we could still hear the men’s applause, and pleas for the pastor to pray for them to be saved.

Prisons are obviously fertile missionary grounds here.

Founded in 1977, the Baptist Biblical Tabernacle “Friends of Israel” church, known as “Taber,” is now believed to be El Salvador’s largest church. Taber claims a congregation of more than 40,000, with millions of converts and more than 500 churches across the country. The megachurch also owns a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers, extending its reach. In 1950, El Salvador was around 99 percent Catholic, but Protestantism has shot up since the 1970s, with 40 percent of adults today identifying as Protestant.

That makes Taber one of the most influential institutions in a country otherwise dominated by gangs.

The switch-over of Latin and Central Americans from Catholicism to Protestantism is still one of the more under-covered stories of modern religion reporting. It is a fait accompli one never thought would happen as recently as the 1970s. Here we read about an evangelical church that's taken on the gangs that rule the country.

According to experts, one of the gangs’ golden rules is that members can never leave with their lives. But in the past few years, there’s been a fascinating development: Gang bosses are increasingly granting those under their command desistance—a status change from “active” to “calmado,” meaning “calmed down”—if they convert to evangelicalism. At El Salvador’s San Francisco Gotera prison, about 1,000 ex-gang members have become evangelicals, nearly all of the overcrowded prison’s occupants.

The phenomenon can also be seen outside, at smaller Pentecostal parishes such as Ebenezer, whose ministry to gang members, The Final Trumpet, is known for speaking in tongues. Newfound-religious who stray from the righteous path, however—whether by drinking, doing drugs, beating their wives or girlfriends, or not attending church—can face deadly consequences from their former compatriots.

It’s an open, urgent question whether evangelical megachurches like Taber can use their influence to bring peace to El Salvador . . .

Actually, according to the link provided in the above paragraph, Ebenezer is simply a Pentecostal church and is known for a lot more than tongues-speaking. I am guessing the reporter is not too familiar with the doctrines of these various congregations.

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Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

I’ve often criticized the Los Angeles Times’ religion coverage –- or lack thereof -– but it was clear this past week in their stories about Sunday’s canonization of Saint Oscar Romero that the paper knows how to marshall resources for the religion beat when it wants to.

It helps that there is an Oscar Romero Square in LA, not to mention a Romero art installation in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown plus an estimated population of more than 400,000 Salvadorans in southern California. Maybe it helps that Romero is a hero to many Catholics on the cultural left.

Romero was killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass; his murder planned by right-wing death squads and directed by ex-Salvadoran Army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. I was only two years out of college when he died. However, thanks to generous coverage of the man in Sojourners magazine (which I subscribed to at the time), I knew who Romero was.

Running an Associated Press account as the main story, the Times sent a Spanish-speaking reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, to Rome to provide “color” stories (as we call it in the industry) of the locals who traveled to Rome for the ceremony. It helped that Bermudez was born in El Salvador.

In life, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was persecuted, shot in the heart by a single bullet while he celebrated Mass.

In death, his legacy was politicized, calumniated — all but silenced.

So for many Sunday, it was extraordinary to see Pope Francis at last declare Romero a saint in St. Peter’s Square.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled Vatican City’s ancient plaza for the ceremony . . . Romero’s followers traveled from El Salvador, Los Angeles, Washington; from distant lands like Sweden, Norway and Australia.

On this grand stage, they savored every detail: the bright blue sky filled with cotton-like clouds; the Gregorian chants ringing over a sea of 70,000 people; the red-ostrich-feathered helmets of the Vatican’s fancy Swiss guards; the bloodstained rope belt worn by Romero at his time of death, now tied around the Pope’s waist to honor his memory.

Romero! Romero! Your pueblo is with you, Romero!

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When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

The headline drew me instantly: “Latin America is the murder capital of the world.”

Appearing in the Wall Street Journal (which, being behind a paywall, is not accessible to non-subscribers so I’ll cut and paste what I can), the piece said the entire continent is in a crisis mode because of the non-stop murders that happen nearly everywhere.

With only a few exceptions (Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba), it’s become a horrible place to live and a risky place to visit. The question, of course, is how religion fits into this picture, in terms of the history of the region, as well as life there right now.

The piece begins with a description of how Acapulco, once the vacation spot for the rich and famous, has become a a sharpshooter’s gallery.

Acapulco’s days as a tourist resort with a touch of Hollywood glamour seem long ago. In a city of 800,000, 953 people were violently killed last year, more than in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands put together.

It’s not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world’s most violent region. Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634. For the entire European Union: 5,351. The United States: 17,250.

I guess there are SOME advantages in China being a police state. It does keep the murders down, although God only knows what really goes on in prisons and prison camps in that country where people disappear and never return.

In this story, everyone gets to die, starting with elementary school-aged kids to surgeons who botched a plastic surgery operation on a drug lord. The latter were found encased in cement.

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Too-perfect storyline: El Salvador criminal gangs gain respect of evangelical churches, let members go

Too-perfect storyline: El Salvador criminal gangs gain respect of evangelical churches, let members go

Here's a fascinating story I missed during the Fourth of July week: NPR reports on an unlikely "respect" between criminal gangs in El Salvador and the nation's evangelical churches.

I really enjoyed the piece and felt like the writer did some excellent reporting.

After reading it all, though, I found myself wondering — and there's a chance this is just me being overly skeptical — whether the narrative is a bit too perfect. 

In other words, life is complicated, and the NPR storyline is simple. Perhaps too simple.

I'll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, let's set the scene with the opening paragraphs:

In El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, people drive around with their car windows closed to avoid petty theft. But when they enter neighborhoods controlled by gangs, they keep their car windows open, to show their faces. That way the gangs know they're not an enemy.

In the center of one such neighborhood, known as La Dina, a tiny Baptist church sits on a narrow street. In a neighborhood notorious for violence, it is the one place gangs leave alone.

The church underscores the growing ties between gangs in El Salvador and evangelical Christianity. In a country where Roman Catholicism has traditionally predominated, evangelicalism is growing and has gained the respect and endorsement of gangs — a rare point of agreement even for rival groups like Barrio 18 and MS-13, the country's two biggest gangs.

It has also left many boys and men growing up in gang-controlled areas with stark choices: According to academic research and interviews with pastors and former gang members, their only alternative to joining a gang — or getting out of one — is to become a devoted member of an evangelical church.

Later, NPR quotes an expert who has studied the relationship between the gangs and the churches — and he's certainly a strong source:

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Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Religion at World Cup 2018: Christianity Today spots valid hard-news hook worth covering

Over the nearly 15 years of GetReligion's run, I have learned quite a few lessons about content and online clicks.

No, I'm not talking about the sad reality that hardly anyone reads and retweets positive posts that praise good religion reporting in the mainstream press.

I am referring to the fact that GetReligion readers are way, way, way, way less interested in sports that most readers. However, the GetReligion team has always included some sports fans -- in addition to me -- and we persist in thinking that "religion ghosts" and quality reporting on faith issues matter just as much in sports journalism as anywhere else. And we're not just talking about Tim Tebow updates.

This brings me, of course, to the biggest thing that is happening in the world right now. Yes, a news event bigger than that open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

We're talking about World Cup 2018, of course. When you look at global media and passionate fans, nothing can touch it.

Now, there are always religion-news hooks during a World Cup, because religion plays a huge role in most cultures around the world. In the past decade or so, for example, there has been lots of coverage of the strong evangelical and Pentecostal presence on the high-profile squad fielded by Brazil. Of course, some scribes have found political implications of that trend.

This year, if you've been tuned in, it’s been interesting to watch Fox Sports trying to figure out how to handle all of the Russian churches that keep showing up whenever the graphics team needs to produce dramatic, sweeping images of the host nation. Was it just (Orthodox) me or, early on, had the Fox digital tech team removed some crosses from the top of some of those signature onion domes?

Anyway, the religion-news coverage has been rather right, this time around. However, Christianity Today just ran a story that I would like to recommend to journalists who are looking for valid news angles in the Russia World Cup.

Once again, the Brazilian squad is involved, but there's more to this story than that. Check out the dramatic double-decker headline:

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